“Why are we holding a new music fundraiser in a Chicago rock bar?” Organizer Doyle Armbrust was the first to ask that question, to an audience at a concert he organized. Dressed like a rock musician himself—black pants, black blazer, black designer T-shirt, and a beard—he looked a little like Tim Heidecker in The Comedy. Yet untrue to that archetype, he’s not a dick. He’s generous enough with his time to have spent the last month convening fourteen ensembles to raise money for a music label he’s never worked for and located in a different city.
Like many in New York, New Amsterdam Records did not make it through Hurricane Sandy untouched. Four feet of water flooded their headquarters in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and they lost tax papers, original scores, and 70% of their CD stocks, said Chicago composer Marcos Balter. It was Balter’s idea to hold a fundraiser for the new music label, simultaneously featuring Chicago’s new music scene. In mid-November he contacted Armbrust, his trusted friend and collaborator on past projects, and the first calls were made that day. “Coordinating four hours of music featuring most of the new-music ensembles in [Chicago] should have taken much longer than the week it did,” said Armbrust, but the ensembles were eager to come together and help their New York compatriots. As for where to host it, Chicago’s Empty Bottle was an obvious choice. As with the other installments of his (Un)Familiar Music series, Armbrust felt the need to “reach a new audience,” adding, “also there’s booze, so that helps.”
However, a drunken bacchanale it was not. The crowd was polite, even shy. After a brief, exciting Bartok movement delivered by the Chicago Q Ensemble, the audience was unsure of how to react. The musicians aren’t finished, are they? Armbrust’s voice bellowed from the back of the bar, “It’s OK to clap, everybody!” And we did.
Many noted the variety of music heard over the course of the afternoon: an all-percussion piece from John Cage, a bluegrass band that played Aaron Copland, a three-piece avante-garde dance project, as well as the usual phalanx of trumpets, violins, and bass flutes.
It turned out the afternoon was full of things that didn’t fit together: people eating hamburgers while listening to Bartok, a brick wall covered in Kewpie doll heads, two Grammy-winning musicians shouting numbers at each other across a crowded room, volunteers weaving through and hawking signed manuscripts as if they were hot dogs. Perhaps the image of a percussionist blowing into a conch shell shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise.
Everyone who’d shown up was totally psyched to raise money for their friends and colleagues in New York, but in the end it was a greater testament to the vibrant Chicago scene. Where else can they pull together fourteen class acts in a week, in a rock bar with staples all over the walls? The four hours ended and we all had to find something else to eat besides beer and hamburgers. On my way out I ran into violinist Austin Wulliman. I told him it was great, and he smiled at me, shouting, “Why can’t every Sunday afternoon be like this!”
Sam Zelitch is a writer and a performer out of Chicago, Ill. Follow him on Twitter: @smellitch.
Full set list:
Gaudete Brass: “Copperwave” (Joan Tower)
CUBE/Janice Misurell-Mitchell: “Amendment Blues No. 1” (Janice Misurell-Mitchell)
Spektral Quartet/Austin Wulliman: “Passeggiata” (Lee Hyla)
Access Contemporary Music/Seth Boustead & Alyson Berger: “Momentary Moments” (Seth Boustead)
Ensemble Vulpine Lupin: “Invocation VI” (Beat Furrer), “Gravity of Shadows” (Morgan Kraus)
Grant Wallace Band: originals
Eighth Blackbird/Tim Munro & Nick Photinos: “Counting Duets” (Tom Johnson), “Pirouettes” (Amy Kirsten)
Fifth House Ensemble: “Duo for Violin and Bass” (Edgar Meyer), “Ocean Body” (Jason Charney)
Ensemble Dal Niente: “Runcible Spoon” (Chris Fisher-Lochhead), “Ear, Skin and Bone Riddles” (Marcos Balter), “Un Lieu Verdoyant (Hommmage à Gérard Grisey)” (Philippe Leroux)
Chicago Q Ensemble/Ellen McSweeney & Dominic Johnson: Bartok Violin Duets (selections)
Fulcrum Point/Stephen Burns: “Paths” (Toru Takemitsu)
Can I Get An Amen: originals
Third Coast Percussion: “Third Construction” (John Cage)
Dojo/The Abominable Twitch/Searchl1te: originals
Upcoming (Un)Familiar Series concerts: Chicago Q Ensemble (2/13/13), Ensemble Dal Niente (5/22/13), Access Contemporary Music (TBD).